The Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy celebrated the opening of its new facility Friday with a fireworks-capped ribbon-cutting where a dais of elected officials praised Sen. Baker for an outstanding career in public service.
In addition to the ribbon-cutting at the new building—which featured remarks by Gov. Phil Bredesen, U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, and U.S. Rep. John Duncan—grand opening events included a public lecture by U.S. Supreme Court Justice (Ret.) Sandra Day O’Connor and an open house at the new building.
The 53,000-square-foot center at 1640 Cumberland Ave. was built at a cost of $17 million, funded entirely by private dollars.
The ribbon-cutting was attended by 250 invited guests including local and state officials, UT officials, center board members and center supporters.
During the ceremony, the speakers praised Baker for being one of Tennessee’s favorite sons and one of UT’s most distinguished alumni.
Baker said the center is "the culmination of many years of effort," but added that its real value is in looking forward—not looking back.
"Rather than just study particular issues—which the Baker Center has done and will continue to do—it will recognize and continue to explore the real meaning of two broad-based political parties," Baker said.
Baker stressed that Americans have "a unique and special talent for self governance" and that politicians work best when they "listen carefully to what the country has to say and then translate that into policy."
Gov. Bredesen said that one of Baker’s legacies is his ability to work with others, despite party differences, and in that spirit, the center will emphasize "not only what the technology solutions are (to America’s problems), but how to get them done."
In the afternoon, O’Connor—the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court—met briefly with a group of students and then spoke to a standing-room-only crowd in the 1,000-seat Cox Auditorium.
"It would be understandable and fitting if the Howard Baker Center was established as a shrine," she said. "But, fittingly, that is not what Howard Baker wanted.
"It is the Howard Baker Center’s goal to provide innovative educational initiatives," she said. That’s important, she emphasized, because more young people today can name The Three Stooges than the three branches of government.
"Unless we do something to reverse that disturbing trend, the joke may be on us," she said.
"I am encouraged by the work of the Baker Center in this regard," she said, adding that the center will "link the academic strengths of UT with the larger community."
Sen. Baker, who earned his law degree from UT Knoxville and has been a longtime supporter of the university, served three terms as a U.S. senator and rose to national prominence during the Watergate hearings of 1973-74 as vice chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee.
In 2000, the U.S. Congress awarded UT a $6 million post-secondary education grant to assist in establishing the Baker Center. Tennesseans serving in Congress at the time, including. Sens. Bill Frist and Fred Thompson, said it was appropriate that Baker’s leadership skills and contributions to public service be studied and copied.
The Baker Center, formerly housed in UT’s Hoskins Library, opened in 2003 with the mission to develop programs and promote research to further the public’s knowledge of our system of governance, and to highlight the critical importance of public service, a hallmark of Sen. Baker’s career. Today, Baker helps raise money and create partnerships for the center. He also provides ideas and assists in programming.
The new facility includes a museum that tells the story of how government works using Sen. Baker’s life as a backdrop. The museum also explores modern Tennessee politics and engages students and adults in interactive exhibits.
The building also houses the Modern Political Archives, which hold more than 100 collections of political papers from prominent Tennessee leaders including U.S. Sens. Baker, Fred Thompson and Estes Kefauver, former Knoxville Mayor and Polish Ambassador Victor Ashe and former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Riley Anderson.
A 200-seat auditorium provides a setting for programs, and classrooms and break-out rooms provide space for instruction and conferences.
"The building will showcase and enhance the Baker Center’s work, making it an even greater asset to our university and our community. It will provide an elegant, state-of-the-art venue for our educational programming," Baker Center Executive Director Alan Lowe said.
A ceremonial groundbreaking for the new building was held in November 2005, and construction began shortly thereafter.
For more information about the Baker Center, see http://bakercenter.utk.edu/main/.